Old steam locomotive chugs back to its roots
CASS, W.Va. -- Shay No. 5, a steam locomotive built in 1905 to work as a road engine on West Virginia Spruce Lumber Co.'s Greenbrier & Elk River Railroad, returned to its freight-hauling roots earlier this week.
On Monday, instead of hauling freshly felled spruce logs off Cheat Mountain to the sawmill at Cass, as it did during the previous century, or transporting passengers to the top of the mountain, as it has for the past several decades, the 107-year-old coal burner pushed a load of specially designed culvert pipe up the steep grade from Cass to a site near the headwaters of Shavers Fork.
It was the most practical way to get the three tons of trout-friendly plastic conduit to the mouth of Oats Run, a native brook trout stream rendered virtually impassible to fish attempting to enter it from Shavers Fork.
The long, shallow conventional culvert that now passes under the State Railroad Authority's right-of-way near the town site of Spruce, a long-abandoned early 20th-century logging town, makes passage in and out of Oats Run a challenge for brookies seeking food and spawning terrain.
"There's no place for the trout to rest while traveling through 120 feet of pipe," said Steve Brown, senior planner for the state Division of Natural Resources. During periods of low stream flow, "the trouts' backs are halfway out of the water as they try to swim upstream" through the old culvert, Brown said. During high-water events, the old pipe is even more impassible.
The new plastic culvert liners carried to the site by Shay No. 5 are equipped with baffles that serve as in-pipe dams, giving trout a number of pools to rest in as they make their way under the rail bed, which passes over Oats Run near its confluence with Shavers Fork. To travel from pool to pool within the new culvert liner, Brown said, the trout will have to make a 2-inch jump, "which, to them, is more like a wriggle," through a notch in each baffle.
"Initially, we wanted to build a new bridge," Brown said, "but this system is capable of carrying floodwaters and it's much less expensive."
Brown found the basic design for the trout-friendly culvert liner on a Canadian Department of Fisheries website. He brought the idea to Paul Kinder with the Natural Resource Analysis Center at WVU's Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. Kinder used the Canadian model to determine the depth, rise and length needed to build a similar baffled liner for use at Oats Run.
Using that information, "my 14-year-old son helped draw up the plans for this one, using Google Sketchup," Kinder said.
Engineers from Snap-Tite, a Louisville, Ky., firm that makes culvert liners, inspected the plans and visited the Oats Run installation site before fabricating the baffled plastic pipe sections that will be fused together and placed inside the existing culvert.
"It's really thrilling to finally see it here," said Kinder, looking at a rail car laden with the plastic conduits, as Shay No. 5 idled and vented billows of steam and smoke into the crisp October sky. "We'll be doing some telemetry studies later, to see how well the trout are able to pass each way in and out of Oats Run."
For the past several years, biologists from the DNR's Wildlife Resources Section and WVU have worked together to return once-pristine mountain streams in the upper Shavers Fork country to their 19th-century status as superb brook trout waters.
Grant funding from the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as mitigation funds from a dam and reservoir project on Elkwater Fork of the Tygart River, are being used to pay for the restoration work.
Last year, DNR, WVU and Canaan Valley Institute personnel built a new railroad bridge and fish ladder to allow trout to once again travel up and down Beaver Creek, a Shavers Fork tributary several miles downstream from Oats Run, that had been blocked by a waterfall formed by erosion around a railbed culvert.
Assuming the Oats Run project works as expected, a similar baffled culvert liner will be installed next spring a short distance downstream, where Lamothe Run enters Shavers Fork adjacent to a 230-acre piece of private land owned by Steve Callen of Morgantown.
"Hopefully, this will once again be the premier brook trout fishery that it once was," said Callen, who was on hand to see Shay No. 5 arrive with its cargo.
"By reconnecting severed spawning tributaries upstream from Cheat Bridge, this project should make a big difference," Brown said.
"You don't want to end up with a lot of genetically isolated trout populations," said Keith McGilvray of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Projects like this can keep that from happening."
Other work planned for the high-altitude watershed includes installing small dams and diversions in Shavers Fork itself to create pools and flush away sediment, and to plant spruce trees along the stream and its tributaries in open areas to provide cooling shade.
In return for providing the steam power needed to bring the baffled culverts to Oats Run, the DNR will enlarge and improve a water tank at Oats Run used by Cass Scenic Railroad steam locomotives.
In addition to pushing the three tons of culvert pipe to the top of Cheat Mountain, Shay No. 5 pushed a caboose used by adventurous overnight guests to its picturesque siding overlooking Oats Run's confluence with Shavers Fork and the open meadows surrounding the townsite of Spruce.
"We think the work going on here will get more people interested in staying at the caboose at Spruce, and getting dropped off up here to fish," said Rob Sovine, superintendent of Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.
Shay No. 5 is one of the nation's oldest engines in continuous service on its original line, and the second-oldest operating Shay in existence.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.